The Stand 2020: Episode 2 – Pocket Savior

“There’s something in you that’s like biting on tinfoil, Larry.”

“Mister, if you’re real, then… I think you’re the Devil.”

(SPOILER WARNING – FOR THE BOOK AND BOTH VERSIONS ON TV!)

The second episode of this new version of The Stand carries on in the template set by the first – a non-linear narrative skipping through the book, to focus on a couple of the major characters. In this case, it’s Jerk With a Heart of Gold singer Larry Underwood, and no-good but slightly pathetic convict Lloyd Henreid. Just as last week, this is one character who ends up on the side of the goodies, and one who ends up on the side of the baddies, and their stories intertwine throughout the episode.

Now, The Stand is a novel with a very, very large cast of characters. But the real plot drivers, the main characters if you will, can be boiled down to just about ten. We met Stu, Fran and Harold last week, this week it’s Larry and Lloyd. That leaves, by my reckoning, Nick Andros (briefly glimpsed here), Tom Cullen, Ralph Brentner (also briefly glimpsed, and now a woman called Ray), Glen Bateman, and everyone’s favourite pyromaniac, the Trashcan Man.

Sure, the novel goes into great detail about Mother Abagail’s long, long, life, and may do here. But both she and main baddie Flagg are supernatural and essentially unknowable, leaving maybe another two or three of the nine episodes to introduce us to the rest of the cast.

That’s a fair bit of runtime – nearly half the series – and the problem with this approach is that the story proper doesn’t seem to have even started yet. I know that sounds weird with a pandemic already having wiped out much of humanity, but actually that’s been skipped over so cursorily, it seems like the series began in its aftermath with only fleeting glimpses of it. With the story structure here, all we know is that there’s been a plague, a motley collection of heroes and villains have survived it, and many of them have ended up being drawn to Boulder, Colorado. As to why they’re there, there’s been scant explanation as yet, presumably leaving more than a few viewers scratching their heads in puzzlement.

Of course if you know the novel, you can fill in the backstory by yourself. But as I said last time, that makes the adaptation pretty impenetrable to anyone who isn’t familiar with the original material. It’s no way to present a story. Imagine an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that began with them already in love and presented only brief flashbacks about why this might be a problem.

Well, gripes aside, this did serve well as an introduction to Larry Underwood, but I was less convinced by Lloyd Henreid. Sure, Lloyd doesn’t exactly come across as a mental giant in the novel, but as played here by Nat Wolff, he seems like the worst kind of cliched Southern imbecile, accent and all. He’s also painted as far less complicit in the crime spree that got him imprisoned, being forced into it literally at gunpoint by his manic partner in crime, Poke Freeman.

Now, I don’t mind a few changes from the source material – in fact it’s preferable in a remake of something that was adapted pretty straight the last time. But why make Lloyd out as less responsible than before, yet still portray him as such an unsympathetic figure? I don’t imagine Nat Wolff had any input into the screenplay, but portraying him as a gurning, cackling moron was surely the actor’s choice.

In fairness, parts of Lloyd’s plotline were done pretty well. The depiction of the prison population gradually succumbing to Captain Trips was well-handled, as sniffling prison guards dragged sheet-shrouded bodies to lie undignifiedly in the prison corridors. Meanwhile the horror of Lloyd’s predicament, locked up with no food or water and no way out, had as much impact as last time. Unlike the 1994 adaptation, which backpedals from the novel to show that Lloyd’s desperation had only driven him to take a few chomps out of a handy rat, this one went the whole hog by having him start to chow down on his dead cellmate.

This plotline also gives us our first real look at the story’s antagonist, Randall Flagg, who comes to ‘rescue’ Lloyd with the ulterior motive of recruiting him as his chief lieutenant. As I expected, Alexander Skarsgard was suitably satanic, his hail-fellow-well-met ferocious grin decidedly unsettling, given the circumstances.

I liked the visuals of his introduction too, director Josh Boone choosing to reveal him gradually, detail by detail, through the bars. First those cowboy boots, then the smiley badge, and finally those glittering, disturbingly good-humoured eyes. You were in no doubt that this was a scary, scary dude – and one of Nat Wolff’s better moments as Lloyd was the single tear tracking down his cheek as he accepted this grinning apparition’s deal with the devil. It was a brief moment, but hard-hitting – this is a man who knows his decision will lead him to damnation. Just a shame his performance hadn’t had that kind of subtlety before, but fair’s fair, the character develops with the story and perhaps Wolff will too.

Larry Underwood’s plotline was better handled (though even here I had a few gripes). Taking place, as in the novel, in New York City, this gives us probably the most expansive look at the pandemic and its effects, in the way only an urban environment can.

The adaptation dispenses with the tortuous backstory of Larry’s rock star adventures out west in LA, presenting him as based in NYC from the outset. Jovan Adepo plays Larry (now race flipped as black, in a nice nod to diversity from the original mostly white cast) charismatically as you’d expect from a rock star, but he’s written as almost too nice if anything. The point of Larry’s character is that he develops from a selfish, self-centred asshole into a more mature, thoughtful altruist; but here we see little of the asshole.

Dropping the California backstory relegates his mother Alice to a much lesser character, and also avoids showing that he’s an immature hedonist who runs back to his mom when things go bad. Instead, we get him shown as a pretty well-developed alcoholic and cokehead, who may (or may not) have stolen his breakthrough hit song from his similarly drug-addled roommate. Adepo gives it his best to be a dick in those early scenes, but as the plague progresses, he seems to become a reasonably decent person almost overnight.

Still, the scenes in NYC do give us the most effective look yet at the crumbling of society in the Captain Trips outbreak. There are a couple of dramatic, expansive shots of stalled traffic in the New York streets, the corpses of those who died fleeing the city still rotting merrily in the cars’ hot interiors. Boone also shows us the chaos at Bellevue hospital, with grossly neck-swollen plague victims dying on gurneys in corridors, while behind closed doors the NYPD pile up the corpses wherever they can.

In the novel (and the 1994 adaptation) all this culminates in one of the story’s best-remembered set pieces – Larry’s panicked flight through the pitch dark Lincoln Tunnel to escape the military quarantine of Manhattan. As a stream of consciousness sequence that takes place almost entirely in the dark, the 1994 adaptation handled it pretty well, with the stalled cars’ tail lights and hazards providing eerie, unnatural illumination for a nightmarish scene. I thought this version would have to go the extra mile to top that.

But in the most egregious change so far, it didn’t even bother with it. Instead, we got a sequence of Larry fleeing through NYC’s oddly well-lit sewer network from a trio of well-armed looters intent on securing the ‘services’ of his female companion Rita Blakemoor (played with a nice brittle fragility by Heather Graham). A horde of rats, and a guilt-inducing hallucination of his dead mother, were worlds away from the horror that King portrays him as going through in the tunnel full of corpses.

To be fair, even King pointed out that going through the tunnel made little sense when Manhattan has so many bridges that Larry and Rita could far more easily have crossed – and this version ultimately shows them doing just that. But it’s deservedly well-remembered as one of the best set pieces in the novel; and while a remake absolutely should change things, to go back to my earlier analogy, this was like doing Romeo and Juliet without the balcony scene.

Later scenes (some shown earlier, in the rather baffling established style), showed us Larry now leading a group of survivors into Boulder, but without filling in the intervening scenes, it was confusing to show him now hooked up with Nadine Cross and mute, feral child Joe. It didn’t help that Nadine, as played unmemorably by Amber Heard, was physically so similar to Rita that at first glance you could easily have mistaken them for the same person.

The plotline did, helpfully, build on last week by showing Larry interacting with previously established characters Stu, Fran and Harold. But even this was a little confusing. Why (the non-novel-readers in the audience might reasonably ask) is Stu now in charge of the Boulder community? For that matter, what is the Boulder community? And why, with no prior depiction of the story, is Larry so indebted to Harold?

So, I’m still finding this new version fairly unsatisfying (though I’ll carry on watching). In part, it’s probably because I am such a fan of the novel, and preferred Mick Garris’ rather straight 1994 adaptation (though even that has its problems). I’m coming at it from that perspective, but trying to imagine how it would come across to viewers completely new to the story. And based on this second episode, my opinion hasn’t changed – I think they’d be absolutely baffled by it.

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